I love this girl. I briefly met her once, years ago, before she moved to Africa and before either of us had children. Recently through this blog and a resulting correspondence, she has come back into my life, and I am so grateful. As you will note from reading her words below, she is wise, faithful, humble, and courageous, and faces Mommyhood in a very challenging context with zest and humor. It required great self-control, posting this, not to go through and underline all the places where her words inspired and challenged me. May they do the same for you, dear reader.
An Interview With Cara
Could you please tell us about your family?
Joe and I have three kids: Ruby and Oliver will be three in April and Finn is three months.
Where are you living? Why are you there?
We’ve lived in Senegal, West Africa since 2008. Our goal is holistic community development. We help people living in poverty appreciate the resources God has given them and use those resources to meet the needs they have. Our desire is to see villages work together, trusting one another and learning to be all that God intends them to be. We do this through adult education, theological training, and community development lessons.
What does it look like being mommy where you are? What are some of the challenges you face? What are some of the particular joys you experience where you are?
Isolation and loneliness are the biggest challenges for me as a mom here. In fact, I have yet to meet a missionary mom who has not said the same thing. Mothering little ones is isolating anyway, no matter where you are. It is hard to get out of the house and have meaningful interactions with other adults. Until just recently there were no other moms of little kids in my town. No play-dates, no MOMS groups, no one to ask, “She suddenly has a fear of the potty. Now what?” The internet is a great resource, but has very small shoulders to cry on.
Another challenge is trying to figure out how to parent my children in public, with women from a different culture watching and critiquing me. The Wolof people are quite vocal with their opinions. I do a lot of things wrong in their eyes. When Oliver was just a couple months old I was helping him learn how to sleep on his own. My house helper would rush to me as soon as he started crying, “Cara, he’s crying, he’s crying,” she would say in a panic. I would reassure her he was fine. Then, she would beg me to let her go get him, and she would just carry him around on her back while she worked, until he fell asleep. When I explained that I wanted him to learn to sleep on his own she looked at me completely bewildered. Whenever she heard him cry she would become instantly paralyzed until he stopped.
I have had women tell me my kids are hungry and need to nurse, that they are full and I shouldn’t force them to nurse, that I shouldn’t sit them up or they would always have a fat stomach, that I shouldn’t lay them down because they will get sick, that they need more clothes on (they always need more clothes on, even though the average temperature here is 90 degrees), that I need to shave their head or they are unclean, that they need gris-gris tied around them or evil spirits will haunt them, that I shouldn’t clip their fingernails or they will become thieves when they grow up, that they will never learn to walk unless I wrap beads around their torsos, and on and on. How do I navigate these things? I want to move towards them, and this culture, as much as I can, but I often find myself saying, “O.K., thanks,” and then totally discounting them. Obviously, some of these beliefs can turn into great spiritual discussions but I have found that challenging also, as my breast is hanging out of my shirt, my son is spitting up on me and has a dirty diaper, and my friend is telling me his baby acne is really some strange disease that her spiritual leader can heal with some traditional herbs. Once, my neighbor came over while I was nursing, told me I was doing things all wrong, and grabbed my breast and my son’s head to help. All I could do was laugh.
But there are definite joys to parenting my kids here. Life is slow. Joe and I get lots of leisure time with our kids. It is always warm so they play outside for much of every day. They are learning two other languages. They are experiencing a big and complicated world, and learning how to navigate in multiple cultures (home culture, Wolof kid culture, missionary kid culture). In many ways, life is much simpler for them here. One of the things I love about being a missionary is raising my kids here. Sometimes I am prone to lament the fact that there are no playgrounds, no parks, no music classes, no libraries (actually, I am always sad about that one), no organized sports. But, mostly I am just thankful for having so much time with my kids.
Can you tell us a bit about a hard time (recent or past) and what encouraged or helped you (from God’s Word) during that season?
We just made a big ministry move, leaving one team and moving to a different city to join a different team and a different work. It had become apparent to us about a year ago that where we were was not sustainable for our family. We knew that something would have to change for us to stay there – but we weren’t sure what. We earnestly prayed for about 6 months that God would show us where he wanted us. During that time I read over and over again Psalm 37 – particularly, “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.” I believed that God would act on our behalf, either by changing our hearts or changing our circumstances. Many days I was prone to discouragement and defeat. But that promise held me up.
I also go to Psalm 94 a lot, because I feel it speaks right to my heart when I am heavy-burdened: “If the Lord had not been my help, my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence. When I thought, ‘My foot slips,’ your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up. When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul. Can wicked rulers be allied with you, those who frame injustice by statute? They band together against the life of the righteous and condemn the innocent to death. But the Lord has become my stronghold, and my God the rock of my refuge.”
What have you learned about sharing your faith and mission with your children? What ideas do you have for helping children to embrace the family’s situation and calling?
Since my kids are still young, and have spent almost their entire lives here in Senegal, this is just normal life for them. As they grow up and we talk about our “jobs” here, I hope that they will understand primarily two things: 1. We love Jesus. 2. We love other people. We live here in Senegal because of those two reasons. Wherever we live I hope that will be the main theme of our lives.
As far as sharing our faith with our kids, things are still pretty simple. We do daily devotions and talk about who Jesus is, and our relationship with him. My goals for them at this age are 1.That they learn to come under authority – the authority of their parents and ultimately the authority of God. And 2. That I am for them, and that God is for them, and we are safe places for them to be who they are. I try to share with them my need for Jesus and my need for his forgiveness. I want them to grow up seeing me need Jesus, and pursuing him.
What words of wisdom or challenge might you have for mothers in different contexts?
It’s funny, I knew a lot more about parenting and being a mom BEFORE I had kids. Somehow, once the kids came, all my puffed up knowledge crawled behind a rock and died. I have only been at this motherhood thing for a few years. I feel like a chump even thinking that I have any wisdom to share. God’s mercy for me is what helps me get up every morning. I look at my husband ALL THE TIME and say, “What should we do?”
The single most helpful thing for me in parenting my children day to day is keeping a spiritually healthy mind and heart. I have to be on my A-game all the time. Obviously, this doesn’t always happen. But when it does, things go much smoother for me and my kids. Having time to myself in the morning, before my kids get up, to pray, read the Bible, get my heart soft and my mind in perspective, makes a world of difference. Days when I don’t do this feel like throw-away days. I respond out of my default, which is selfishness, annoyance, and frustration with two two-year-olds demanding their needs, fighting, and hanging on me. I also need some exercise to help me keep up with my kids’ energy level.
So, that is my ideal. I have a three month old who just started sleeping through the night, so I feel like I have been off my A game for a while. I apologize to my kids a lot, and they are getting good at forgiving.
Another word of wisdom; if possible, get help. I have house help – someone who comes every day and cleans my house! A major luxury! I realize this isn’t possible for most people. But maybe there is a girl in the church who would love to come and play with your kids for a few hours a week, or help with house work. Or maybe there is another mom around who could watch your kids one morning, and you watch hers another. Be creative. Ask for help, and offer to help others. We need each other. Community makes this season easier.
Finally, laugh. Laugh at yourself. Laugh with your kids. Laugh at the days to come.
How can we pray for you?
We just moved to a new city, joined a new team, and are starting a new job. This brings new stresses. You can pray for grace for us – especially that we would have lots of grace towards our kids. They are doing great through the transition, but as we deal with setting up a house, and the stress that that entails, we tend to be short with them. There is so much to do to make our house functional, but I still want to lovingly care for my kids. It’s easy for me to lose perspective when I can’t find anything and I am tripping over boxes.
Want to hear more from Cara? Check out HERZblog.